Organizations that wish to weigh in on a proposal to change one of the federal government’s key definitions of rural have until Friday, March 19, to file comments.

The proposed change would raise the population threshold that defines metropolitan and nonmetropolitan counties. Currently, a county must have a city of 50,000 inhabitants to qualify as the core county of a metropolitan area. The proposed change would raise that threshold to 100,000.

The new rule would reclassify about 250 counties from metropolitan to nonmetropolitan, shifting about 18 million Americans out of metropolitan areas. That would increase the current nonmetropolitan population of 46 million by about 40%.

The definition is managed by the White House Office of Management and Budget.

The OMB filed a notice in the Federal Register about the proposed change on January 19. The comment period ends Friday, March 19. Interested parties may comment online.

As of Wednesday morning, March 17, the proposal had received nearly 300 comments. The majority are from leaders of small metropolitan areas that would lose their metropolitan status. Nearly all oppose the change, primarily because of fears that changing the definition would affect federal funding that flows to metropolitan areas.

A smaller set of comments opposes the change out of fear that it would dilute federal funding for rural programs, since more counties would fall in the nonmetropolitan category theoretically create more competition for those dollars.

While some federal programs use the metropolitan/nonmetropolitan designation as a basis for determining eligibility for federal funding, others use different criteria like population size. There is no comprehensive list of programs that use the metropolitan/nonmetropolitan system as part of their funding eligibility, according to a 2014 report from the Congressional Research Service.

OMB says it maintains the definition for statistical purposes only and discourages agencies from using the system for determining funding eligibility.

One group of rural nonprofits, policy analysts, and advocates has urged OMB to delay any decision until the agency can determine the impact the change could have on rural and urban programs.

OMB has final say on whether the proposal is accepted. The agency could have made the decision without publishing a notification of the proposed change in the Federal Register. The notification was published the last full day of the Trump administration.

The Daily Yonder has not received responses to questions directed to OMB staff. The agency currently does not have a permanent director.

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